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Ten months later, Whalen is finally ready to set foot in Williams Arena

Lindsay Whalen and her dad were in front of the TV Tuesday night. She was rapt, engaged. She was yelling and screaming. She was rooting for the Gophers women's basketball team as they pulled away for a win at Michigan.

She was being a fan.

"I love this team, I love Minnesota through and through,'' Whalen said by phone this week. "Life is too short not to enjoy the things you love."

It's been 10 months since Whalen's tenure as the team's head coach — running the program she put on the map as a player — ended. She has not talked with athletics director Mark Coyle since that day, when her leaving was presented as her only option. She has not stepped foot back in Williams Arena.

Until now, months after accepting a settlement to leave the school rather than stay on as a special assistant to the athletics director.

The Gophers host Nebraska on Sunday. It's Alumni Day. That's an annual event. But this time much of the emphasis will be on the 20-year anniversary of the 2004 NCAA Final Four team — Whalen's team.

"Can't help but be a little nervous," she said. "First time back. But once I get there, once the game starts, it will all be good."

And that's the good news. Nearly a year later, Whalen is happy. Separated from the stress of coaching a program she loved, she has, in a sense, re-engaged with life. Whalen has been able to follow husband Ben Greve around, caddying for him at golf tournaments. They've been to the cabin. Whalen went to Ireland with some family. She has become obsessed with tennis.

This was not necessarily the case a year ago. Whalen was trying to succeed with the program she grew up watching, the one she played for. There wasn't enough winning, too much losing. As a competitor, it wore on Whalen.

There was anxiety. Whalen had trouble sleeping, eating.

"I don't want to say it broke me,'' Whalen said. "But the constant pressure. The expectations — both internal and external? I felt I wasn't able to be my best self anymore. … Having that many people under your watch, it was so different from being a player. It kind of got to me.''

Whalen still feels attached to the players, many of whom she recruited. She supports coach Dawn Plitzuweit — Whalen recommended Plitzuweit to Coyle on the way out — and they text, with Whalen wishing her luck before most games. She is impressed with the job Plitzuweit is doing.

Whalen said she wishes the best for the players. She hopes players who transferred and coaches who had to move on are OK.

Whalen is. "I'm in a better place right now," she said.

Different than playing

This cannot be overstated.

Whalen spent most of her life succeeding. She helped take the Gophers from the bottom of the Big Ten to the Final Four. She appeared in eight WNBA finals, winning four titles with the Minnesota Lynx. She is proud of the way she represented the Gophers, the Lynx, the state.

"It's hard to win,'' Whalen said of her coaching experience. "I expected it to be pretty seamless, how it was when I played. That it'd be like the Lynx, selling out games, going to the tournament. Once you've had that, anything less you're feeling like .... not necessarily failing. But once you've been to the Final Four, won WNBA championships, that becomes your expectation. But that's not how it is."

From 2018 through last spring the Gophers went 71-76 overall, 31-56 in the conference, getting two WNIT berths.

But her fingerprints are still on the team. She had a highly-ranked recruiting class of Mara Braun, Amaya Battle, Mallory Heyer and Nia Holloway that are all sophomores now. She landed center Sophie Hart through the transfer portal. Six of the top eight players in minutes played and points scored are Whalen recruits.

Whalen keeps in contact with the players; Braun said this week that she'll often get texts before and after games.

"It's been special to be able to still share this with her,'' Braun said. "She loves us; we love her, too. So we're excited to be able to have her back and see her.''

Said Holloway, who missed last season with a knee injury: "It's special for me because she hasn't seen me play in college yet. I think that's really cool."

That all four recruits — and Hart, a transfer — stayed through the change is due at least in part to Whalen encouraging everyone to stay.

"It shows her loyalty to the state as well as us,'' Braun said. "I had a lot of conversations with her about us staying here. When I decided to stay, finishing what we started. … She's a big reason why we're here."

Tensions release

Whalen has had 10 months to, as she put it, go through the stages. To decompress.

She needed it. Of course, there are things she misses. The camaraderie of a team, feeling a part of something. That doesn't change after decades in the sport.

"But since I've been in college, that's been it,'' Whalen said. "It was basketball. My family, too, but I put a lot into playing. I put a lot of pressure on myself. I was in a pressure cooker for the better part of 20 years.''

She still has a connection to the game. She does some work with USA Basketball. She's worked with the 3x3 program, and serves on the committee for the U-19 team selection.

But mostly it's family, some travel, the cabin, tennis.

Relaxation.

"Sometimes it's OK to be bored,'' she said.

The Alumni Game is the perfect time to return. She is looking to reconnect with old teammates, such as Janel McCarville. They went to the Final Four together, were both on the 2013 Lynx title team. McCarville, now the girls coach in Stevens Point, Wis., will be in town, among many.

Whalen will reminisce, and cheer.

"We're there to see them beat Nebraska,'' she said.

Plitzuweit is thrilled to have her.

"We're excited she's coming back," Plitzuweit said. "I think it's really important. I'm thankful Lindsay has really reached out and connected and stayed in contact, and I'm excited for our fans to have her back."

The future? Whalen won't rule out a return to coaching. But probably not as a head coach. She'd love to join a program, a team, and help with development, helping someone implement their vision.

But right now, she's a fan. Really of everything Minnesota. Gophers men, Gophers and Vikings football, the Timberwolves, the Wild.

But especially the Gophers women.

"The program is bigger than any one person,'' Whalen said. "Everybody knows this. It's bigger than a few conversations, how things played out.

"It's going to be good to be back in the arena. Back in Williams, where I dreamt of playing when I grew up."